Tough, iras­ci­ble, pas­sion­ate — with life story to match

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

Sports are about the mo­ment, and foot­ball has the mem­ory of a play clock. So a few gen­er­a­tions only know Bob Kuechen­berg from his get-off-my-lawn rants or his un­sat­is­fied hope for the Hall of Fame. And that’s fine. That’s part of his story.

Even after his lat­est failed nom­i­na­tion last Au­gust, Kuechen­berg noted how he was the only eight­time fi­nal­ist not in the Hall and had re­signed him­self to not ever get­ting in be­fore catch­ing him­self in a glimpse of self-aware­ness.

“Don’t say that,” he told me. “Peo­ple think I’m an­gry enough al­ready.”

He knew who he was, right to his death at age 71. His legacy de­serves more than that car­toon sketch, though. His life was so much more. Where do you even start? With a per­sonal story of his fa­ther be­ing a hu­man can­non­ball in a Mid­west­ern cir­cus, caus­ing Kuechen­berg to joke, “Dad said I could go to col­lege or

be a can­non­ball.”

Or do you start with his foot­ball life? How he was a five-time, All-Pro guard for the mighty Dol­phins of the 1970s — and an All-Pro tackle once? How he quit on the Philadel­phia team that drafted him, played for a semi-pro team in Chicago and then signed with the Dol­phins sim­ply be­cause his Notre Dame backup, Ed Tuck, was on the ros­ter.

“I knew I was bet­ter than him,” Kuechen­berg said.

You could just start and end with the story of Kuechen­berg’s bro­ken left arm. It tells his story.

Years later, he’d bring friends over to his house, mix them drinks and take his time per­fect­ing them with a metal stir­rer as he told the story in de­tail.

It be­gan with him break­ing his arm on a kick­off in De­cem­ber of 1973, the year after the un­de­feated one that’s in the his­tory books. This next sea­son was the one those Dol­phins re­mem­ber as the more dom­i­nant team, though, and Kuechen­berg didn’t want to miss the play­offs. Kuechen­berg came to the side­line.

“He said to me, ‘Doc, you’ve got to tape me up or some­thing,’ ” the late Charles Vir­gin once said. “I couldn’t do that. I could feel the end of the [bro­ken] bones go crack, crack, crunch, crunch, grind, grind. I took him out of the game. He was very an­gry at me.”

With the play­offs com­ing, Kuechen­berg told Vir­gin to come up with a plan. Vir­gin had only one idea. He could drill the bone mar­row from the arm, re­place it with a metal rod and put the arm in a cast. That’s ex­actly what they did, too.

Kuechen­berg beat that cast into mush that Su­per Bowl against Min­nesota de­fen­sive tackle Alan Page, that sea­sons’ de­fen­sive player of the year. It wasn’t just the cast. Kuechen­berg no­ticed on film Page set his left foot back a frac­tion if he was rush­ing to the in­side.

Page had one tackle. Dol­phins quar­ter­back Bob Griese only threw seven times. The of­fen­sive line and full­back Larry Csonka dom­i­nated the day to the point Page be­came so frus­trated he was kicked out of the game near the end.

“That metal rod was em­bed­ded in my arm so tightly Dr. Vir­gin broke three tools get­ting it out,” Kuechen­berg would say to his friends, still stir­ring the drinks.

Then he’d pull the stir­rer from a drink.

“Here’s the metal rod,” he’d say.

That’s the quin­tes­sen­tial Kuechen­berg story, full of odd­ness, tough­ness and a chuckle at the end. That left arm, alone, should get him in the Hall. If all his awards don’t. If his 14 Dol­phins years and 196 games (both rank be­hind only Dan Marino) can’t.

His fa­vorite play be­came the name of his boat: “34 Trap.” He knocked out Bal­ti­more de­fen­sive end Bubba Smith run­ning it and hit Cincin­nati’s Mike Reid so hard that, years later, when they met, Reid said, “Oh my god, there’s the man that hit me so hard I couldn’t fall down.”

That play also was the fi­nal one Kuechen­berg ran as a Dol­phin. He was in train­ing camp in 1984, in a ca­reer that spanned

Griese and Marino, when some­thing hap­pened on “34 Trap.” He saw dou­ble vi­sion. His op­tic nerve was so frayed from all the hits it fi­nally broke, he said.

“That’s it,” he said on the prac­tice field that day. “I’m done.”

He owned a few busi­nesses after foot­ball and, more pub­licly, crit­i­cized the mod­ern Dol­phins loudly and of­ten for a stretch. Hall of Famer Ja­son Tay­lor once said Kuechen­berg, “needs a hug and a hobby.” Maybe he did, too.

He cer­tainly needed surgery to cor­rect his eye. He al­ways saw dou­ble when he tilted his head down, as if in a three­p­oint stance. I once told him he prob­a­bly liked that re­minder. He didn’t dis­agree.

“I’ve read where a cham­pion race­horse will run it­self to death, and I was the same way on a foot­ball field,” he said.

“My at­ti­tude was that ev­ery Sun­day was a dream come true.”

Re­mem­ber him for that. Re­mem­ber him as an hard-line, iras­ci­ble old Dol­phin, if you want. But the son of a hu­man can­non­ball who starred on this fran­chise’s best Sun­days was so much more than that.

SUN SEN­TINEL FILE

Bob Kuechen­berg, a Dol­phins guard whose ca­reer spanned 14 years and four Su­per Bowl ap­pear­ances, died Satur­day.

Dave Hyde

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